Yemen claims ownership of Jewish artifacts smuggled out of the country

A century ago, Yemen boasted one of the largest Jewish populations in the world.  But wars, terrorism, and violence targeting this minority forced most of them to flee for their lives, with many settling in the United States or Israel. 

When Jews fled Yemen, they took along their highly-valued religious items and artifacts. One such item is a Torah Scroll, believed to be hundreds of years old, that was smuggled out of Yemen to Israel by the family of Manny Dahari.

Dahari's family has owned the scroll for at least 300 years, but Yemen’s government is hoping to get it and other Jewish items back, claiming them as “national cultural artifacts.” 

Yemen's government has filed a request with the U.S. State Department for a Memorandum of Understanding, which if granted would recognize Yemen’s ownership of the items.  Anyone transporting or possessing such items, like the Daharis’ Torah Scroll, could face sanctions.

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“Basically it would criminalize anyone who brings any of these items to the United States, or takes them out of those countries," says Dahari.

The fear is that Yemen wouldn’t properly care for the relics.  The government has a history of persecuting Jews and, destroying homes, synagogues and other remnants of Jewish life in Yemen. The country's Iran-backed Houthi rebels are known for often doing the same. Dahari’s family was already extorted in an effort to give up the scroll, and they believe the Yemenis would have either destroyed the scroll or try to sell it to unscrupulous collectors.

Jewish groups worldwide have asked the U.S. government not to honor by Yemen’s request. 

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“Jewish cultural property such as Torah Scrolls does not constitute the national heritage of governments who expel or who forced their Jewish communities to flee anti-Semitic prosecution,” says Sarah Levin, the executive director of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA).  Yemeni Jews are part of a distinct ethnic Jewish rite known as “Mizrahi.”  While Mizrahi Jews once called lands like Yemen and Iran their homes, they now mostly live in Israel.

Torah Scrolls are sacred to all Jews. They contain the first five books of the Bible handwritten by artisan scribes in special calligraphy using natural ink on animal parchment.  Jews also believe that the Torah Scrolls themselves, in addition to the biblical text they contain, are of Divine nature.  To allow a scroll to fall into disrepair or to be damaged is considered a desecration and a blasphemy.

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The State Department could make its ruling on Yemen’s request by the end of this month.

Eben Brown is a FOX News National Correspondent in Miami.  Follow him on Twitter @FOXEbenBrown.